Your Guide to Organic, Biodynamic and Natural Wine

When I read a recent article about the new flash extraction machinery at Monterey Wine Company, I did a double-take. I thought it had gotten mixed in with all of those April Fools Day blog posts.

But no, it seems they are quite serious about utilizing this new wine technology and are proud to spill the beans about it as well. After reading about what this process does to the grapes, I am not so confident that their client wineries will be quite so forthright about using flash extraction.

Here is a quote from the article, lest anyone think I am exaggerating:

Flash-Détente, which translates roughly as “instant relaxation”, involves a combination of heating the grapes to about 185ºF, then sending them into a vacuum chamber where they are cooled. The cells of the grape skins are burst from the inside, allowing for better extraction of anthocyanins and skin tannins. Flash-Détente creates steam that goes into a condenser, and the condensate is loaded with pyrazines and other aromatic compounds, like the aromas associated with rot or mold. (The heating process also sterilizes the grapes.) Bayle acknowledged that some fruit aromas are also found in the condensate. “You smell the green first, and a tiny part of the flavor,” Bayle said of the condensate.

Because vapor has been removed, the sugar level is increased in the remaining must. The winemaker can either work with the higher Brix level; add back the condensate; discard the condensate and add water; or a combination.

Apparently the color is much darker with the ‘flashed’ wines. But I ask, is color a problem that needs to be fixed in California Zinfandel? Also, big surprise here, it was noted during sampling the resultant wines, that the ‘flashed’ wines had lost some of their varietal flavor characteristics.

Monterey Wine Company states that this process is best used on “substandard, low quality and problematic grapes”. Sounds delicious. This is another perfect example of why there has been a growing interest in natural wines over processed wines.

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I grew up as a child in the 70’s. A confusing culinary juncture for North America. We ate Wonder Bread but hearty whole grain breads were starting to slip in there as well. I was raised in Texas and we were shopping at the early incarnation of Wholefoods when I was a pre-teen. Back then, it was mostly bins of grains, nuts, honey and organic produce. It planted a seed for me.

I don’t remember the first time I had a crusty baquette from a bakery. But I do remember back-packing through Europe at 19 and devouring buttery croissants and cafe au laits for breakfast, as well as simple but delicious ham sandwiches on fresh baquette. I was ruined and rarely, if ever, ate store bought pastries or bread again.

Wine has taken me on a similar journey. I started out with the readily available, conventional wines. I went through the pre-requisite early days of loving big, bruising reds and then later retreating to more subtle and refreshing whites or roses.

The past few years I have been delving ever deeper into wines made with native yeasts, neutral oak, and increasingly organically farmed grapes. Some are made with minimal added sulfites and some are sans soufre or have no added sulfites.

These wines are often lumped into the natural wine category. And indeed we do need a term to help identify these wines. These wines are free of processing from cultured yeasts, toasty new oak flavorings, added acids, purple dyes, and grapes sprayed with toxic chemicals.

Honestly, at the beginning of this journey, I could barely get my head around these wines. It was the equivalent of eating sugary, processed packaged bread for my whole life and then tasting fresh, crusty sourdough bread for the very first time. (like Woah! bread doesn’t taste like this? Does it?)

There were flavors, smells and textures that I had never encountered before in wine, so foreign at first, so endlessly exciting now. So freaking fresh! Honest wine indeed.

Of course, my problem now is that it is becoming increasingly difficult for me to truly enjoy conventional wines. Oh, I can taste them for professional purposes and discuss their merits or flaws. But I just can’t drink them for pleasure or with dinner anymore. In comparison, they taste manufactured. The amount of time spent in new oak barrels is especially overbearing in many cases.

This was highlighted last night, when I popped my last bottle Andrea Calek Blonde 2008, a vin naturel petillant (lightly, naturally sparkling wine made from organic chardonnay and viognier grapes). This wine is so much delicious fun, so exuberantly appley and refreshing.

Earlier I had been tasting a relatively high end pinot noir for review, it tasted dead in comparison. All oak and rich, thick cherry juice.

As I said, I am ruined…..and very, very happy.

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Organic Wines For Thanksgiving

If you want to taste some stellar wines that were made with organic and biodynamic grapes, here is my quick list for Thanksgiving wine choices:

Sparkling Wines:

Domaine Carneros Brut Cuvee 2005 $26 (widely available)

Aroma: Honeysuckle and toasted nuts. Flavors: Pear compote and lemon custard. A perfect match for slightly spicy asian foods or a cheese and fruit platter.Varietal blend:64% pinot noir, 34% chardonnay and 2% pinot blanc. Made from organically grown grapes.

Tarantas Cava 2008 $13.99 (ask for it at Wholefoods)

The Tarantas Cava is full of apple fritter aromas with a touch of cinnamon and has a dry, refreshing finish. Gorgeous bubbles and low alcohol make this a perfect celebratory aperitif at week’s end. Made with organically grown grapes.

White Wine:

Weingut Zahel Riesling 2008 $19.99 (buy it online here or ask your local retailer)
Gorgeous citrus fruits with a touch of honeysuckle aromas. Lovely fruit to match your turkey but dry, minerally finish. Very refreshing acids. NY Times writes about these Austrian wines here. Zahel practices a mix of organic and biodynamic farming, although they do not use copper sulphate as many biodynamic farmers do.

Rose Wine:

Edmunds St John Bone Jolly Gamay Noir Rose 2008 $15 (ask your retailer or call here)
Count yourself among the blessed if you can score a bottle of this delicious California rose wine. I used to sell it as a wine wholesale rep in Texas and we could never get enough. Gorgeous flavors of strawberries and citrus fruits. Crisp, dry finish. A quintessential Thanksgiving wine. Grapes are from practicing organic vineyards and have no commercial yeasts added.

Red Wine:

Cooper Mountain Pinot Noir Reserve 2007 $25

The Cooper Mountain Pinot Noir 2007 Reserve is an excellent, change all your preconceptions about domestic Pinot Noir, wine drinking experience. Delicious cherry aromas with a bit of smoke and earth. Nice touch of mushroom. Gorgeous ruby color. Certifed biodynamic.

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I had the pleasure of meeting winemaker Antonio Bravo from Emiliana Winery today. There is quite a bit of online chatter about organic and biodynamic wines but I especially relish the opportunity to discuss these wines with the person who actually makes them.

Antonio made vast amounts of conventional wines for huge wine companies like Kendall Jackson in the past.Now he makes smaller quantities of certified organic and biodynamic wines for Emiliana. He started out with some healthy skepticism for biodynamic wine making but became a believer when he saw the grape quality. Not to mention the health of the vineyard workers and the vitality of the vineyards themselves.

But as a friend of Antonio’s said,”Belief is for the priests”. Antonio made it clear that his priority is to produce high quality wines in a responsible manner. And hopefully wines that are specific to Chile, wines that could not be mistaken for a Napa cabernet or an Australian shiraz. This is another reason that Antonio uses natural yeasts as much as possible.

These are wines I encourage you to seek out. Bright acidity, fresh fruit flavors and lovely spice (especially the carmeneres).

Emiliana produces four brands:

G is a red blend of carmenere, syrah, cabernet sauvignon and merlot.Certified biodynamic and made with natural yeasts. $90

Coyam is another red blend of syrah, merlot, carmenere, cabernet sauvignon, malbec and mourvedre. Certified biodynamic and made with natural yeasts. $30

Novas has several white wine and red wine blends. Made with certified organic grapes and a blend of natural and cultivated yeasts. $17

Natura is the entry level wine and has several varietal wines: chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, carmenere and syrah. Made with certified organic grapes. $11

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What was the vision behind opening Ten Bells?

The story of The Ten Bells was to open a place where we would go to : good food with the priority of getting ingredients from local producers working organic or sustainable methods, and natural wines.

What did you do before Ten Bells?

I worked for more than 8 years at Le Pere Pinard, a French Bistrot who was located on Ludlow Street, 3 blocks away from The Ten Bells. As the G.M, I was running the day to day operations including taking care of the wine list.

Are all of the wines at Ten Bells considered natural wines?

I would say 99% are.

What does the term natural wine mean to you?

A wine is considered natural when the winemakers use organic methods not only in the vineyard but in the cellar as well, meaning less intervention as possible, indigenous yeast, no sugar added, very low or no sulfites, no collage.

Do your customers understand natural wine and do they ask for wine that is organic or biodynamic?

Some of them knows and come to us because we carry the wines that they’re looking for. But for most of them, we have to explain the difference between organic, natural and biodynamic. The only phase of winemaking that got the “organic” label is the growing of the grapes. After that, winemakers can use chemical yeast, add sugar, wood chips or sulfites as much as he wants, he will still have the “AB” label on his bottle. Then the natural wine keeps the organic methods in the vinification process, and for biodynamic wines, every steps of the process is ruled by the invisible forces of the Earth.

What makes you happy?

Right now, the first thing that makes me happy is my daughter… she was born 3 weeks ago!!! In a more general way, I would say that my life makes me happy. I do what I love. I travel to visit vineyards and winemakers, only in France so far, I visit farms upstate New-York to find ingredients, and the final idea of it is to share it with people that understand or hopefully will understand that it is a necessity for everyone to eat and drink better. And with The Ten Bells, it’s the perfect way to show that you can do so without breaking your wallet.

What makes Sundays so amazing at Ten Bells?

We created the “Sunday Night Delicacies” so every Sunday we offer a special treat to our patron. it changes every week and we like to bring items that people are not use to eat. So from one week to another, you can feast on a roasted baby goat or a suckling pig, a creamy chicken gizzard and heart stew or a spicy lamb curry.

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I have seen multiple stories recently of how strong the organic/biodynamic wine niche remains even during these turbulent economic times. It’s true that this is a very heartening overall trend in the U.S., that people are paying attention to what they put into their bodies.

But I think this trend is somewhat due to the fact that Organics has finally developed sex appeal.

Let’s start with the surface level, as one usually does. Compare the rosy, plump organic apples available today with the withered, pockmarked organic produce of recent history.

Same goes for wine where we used to have only oxidized, poor quality organic wines available, but now that hundreds of well respected wineries around the world have fully embraced organic and biodynamic grape growing, we are experiencing amazingly silky, stunning wines.

I went to The Ten Bells wine bar in lower Manhattan this week. Ten Bells is a true French style wine bar. There are similar venues throughout Paris. Small, sexy, convivial and crowded. You are there to talk loud, laugh long, eat and drink with gusto.

A relatively limited food and wine selection but all of exceptional quality and highly recommended. Ten Bells focuses on organic and biodynamic wines. The staff were gruff but tender and authentically passionate about their chalkboard menu. I felt absolutely confident to put myself in their very capable hands.

I wish I could have gotten a good photo of FiFi, our wonderful host. But Ten Bells is dark and hectic. He was gorgeous, charming and smelled delicious. He suggested the Catherine and Pierre Breton Bourgueil and I knew he was the man for me.

We drank the Catherine et Pierre Breton Bourgueil Trinch! 2007. $17. It had crunchy red fruit flavors, touch of minerality and fennel. Easy to find online and very easy to drink with charcuterie.

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A Spanish Crush – Petalos 2007

petalos-vineyardI admit it, I have a crush on wines from northwestern Spain.

Maybe I am drawn to the romantic visions of rugged winemakers toiling in the cool coastal weather. Or maybe it’s because I am a seafood fanatic and this region is famous for it’s world class treasures of the sea.

Or perhaps it is the fact that the most famous grapes from this region, Albarino and Mencia, almost always perform admirably in every price range.

I am virtually never disappointed by the crisp apple flavors of Albarino or the mineral laden, blueberry notes of Mencia. Seriuously, if you find wines made from either of these grapes at a restaurant or wine shop, buy them with a sense of security.

The Petalos 2007 is made by Descendientes de José Palacios. Gorgeous dark floral aromas, like violets. Tangy blueberry flavors and a firm minerality (like you get from some mineral waters) that holds it all together.

This wine is made with 100% Mencia grapes from the Bierzo region. The grapes are grown using biodynamic viticulture. Biodynamics involves organic grapegrowing practices plus many extra steps to insure the land is self-sustaining.

Alvaro Palacios is the winemaker. He is considered an iconoclast in the Spanish winemaking world. Alvaro took a chance on the then unknown Priorat region of Spain in the late eighties. And he has taken another well educated bet on the Bierzo region where the Mencia grape is grown. He also practices biodynamic viticulture, which firmly puts him in the domain of wine industry iconoclasts and romantics.

You can buy it online. $18

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Life of the Party

Life Pinot Noir is a new pet project for Cooper Mountain winemaker, Gilles de Domingo. I am a big fan of Cooper Mountain wines. All of their estate grown grapes are Demeter certified biodynamic.

Color: dark garnet
Aromas: earth, forest mushrooms and juicy cherry
Flavors: vibrant raspberry and more cherry, fresh herbs, wonderful acidity
Food match: Moroccan style tuna kebobs
Life is a biodynamic wine with no added sulfites. For the moment, only available at the winery and EcoVine Wine Club.

Gilles is from a winemaking family in Bordeaux and has made wine in France, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia before settling with Cooper Mountain in Oregon. I asked Gilles a few questions about Life and himself below.

Is LIFE available for purchase anywhere?

LIFE wine is produced on limited quantity (100 cases /year) therefore it can be find at the winery or on some shops.

Please tell me about the winemaking process for Life, especially about your thinking behind not adding sulfites.

The winemaking process is quite simple: Designation of block in our vineyard, cropping low, Native yeast, Native bacterias, Barrel aging, temperature of storage is at 55-56 degrees.

Starting 2002, Cooper Mountain Vineyards is producing a No Sulfite Added Wine because of several reasons:

1) Sulfites denature the aromatic profile of a wine and therefore, in a certain extent, it eliminates the notion of pure expression of terroir. A no sulfite added wine made from Biodynamic Grapes should be seen as the ultimate form of Biodynamic Wine.

2) Scientific reasons:

a) SO2 is a known to limit the oxidation of a wine (antioxidant). Because of numerous research tend to demonstrate the powerful antioxidant effect of polyphenols naturally contains in grapes, we believe that these polyphenols can replace the antioxidant effect in wine.

b) SO2 is known to limit the microbiological spoilage in wines. Based on the concept that microbiological spoilage could be prevented by applying the medical theory that the abuse of antibiotics will decrease the immune system of an human, the SO2 should be seen as an antibiotic and therefore decrease the natural population of positive yeast/bacterias. In conclusion, the objective is to “enrich” the level of native yeast/bacterias in the vineyard/cellar in order to compete with the negative population.

3) SO2 allergy
The owner of Cooper Mountain is a physician who believes that anybody should be able to drink wine.

What are your thoughts about sulfites and processes for avoiding the usual problems of sulfite free wine?

After the first addition of Sulfite in a wine (after ML for a Pinot Noir), any winemaker will notice a bleaching effect on the wine. This observation is the demonstration that sulfite is somewhat as some strong side effect which reduce the potential of a wine.

The process of avoiding problems are based on several factors:
– 90 % of a sulfite free wine is made on the vineyard: Naturally increasing the level of antioxidant on the berries by cropping low, avoiding excess spray, dry farming works better, exposition, etc…
– 10 % of a sulfite free wine is made on the cellar: If the berries are naturally healthy (full of life and good immune system), the job is quite very easy.

In conclusion, in our opinion with patience and dedication, the use of sulfites will tend to significantly decrease on the future because it could simply replaced naturally.

What is you first wine related memory?

As a good French teenager, partying with wine was a great think to do. Because my family had an enormous quantity of wine in their cellar, I was the kid in charge of taking some bottles in order to party with my friends. Years later and when I stopped to be a spoiled teenager, I realized that I was taking some 1964 Chateau Gruaud Laroze or Chateau Latour…Sorry dad!

What would be your favorite meal with a bottle of Life Pinot Noir?

Take a nice piece of steak (with fat around). Cook it with sea salt, garlic and put Pinot on the top of the steak. Serve it with Green beans. No sauce, please.

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